Protein, skin looseness and cellulite

Why is protein so important for my looks?

Literally every body tissue that gives you shape and makes you look firm and young is made of protein. Your skin, muscles, fascia, ligaments and even part of your bones are made of proteins, such as collagen and elastin, among others. Collagen provides firmness, whilst elastin provides elasticity. A high protein level in those tissues can only make you toned and fit, whilst on the other hand, excessive fat and water gives you that loose, flabby, "cellulite-y" look (lack of firmness is one of the main facets of cellulite).

These skin, muscle, bone and connective tissue proteins (let's collectively call them "beauty proteins") degrade with time and need to be broken down and replaced with newly synthesised proteins by cells such as myocytes (muscle cells), fibroblasts (connective tissue cells, including skin cells) and osteoblasts (bone cells).

Beauty proteins can be degraded due to a variety of reasons. Some factors are listed below:

  • Simple wear and tear (ageing)
  • High sugar/excessive carbohydrate intake (sugar is lethal for body proteins as it degrades them via a process called glycation)
  • Immune cell action (as when you suffer from chronic, low grade inflammation, for example)
  • Fat cell action. Fat cells do break down the collagen structures around them in order to grow and accommodate more fat. This is a major cause of cellulite and the flabbiness that is associated with it.

To replace the "beauty proteins" with newly synthesised ones and maintain your skin firmness, your cells need aminoacids and peptides that can only be derived from dietary protein. This means eating fish, chicken, lean red meat (including lean beef, lean pork, lean lamb and game), eggs, low fat cheese (such as cottage and ricotta cheese), low fat milk and pulses (beans, lentils, peas, fermented soya products etc.).

Contrary to popular belief, foods like quinoa (loads of carbs and little protein) and nuts (loads of fat and little protein) are not protein-rich foods.

 

But isn't too much protein, especially meat, bad for you?

Most women today don't realise how important protein is for their physical appearance and overall health, and unwittingly or purposely follow a low protein diet, with disastrous consequences. Excessive consumption of fatty red meat may be bad for you, but having no meat and animal food at all can be equally bad. With this negative attitude towards red meat among the female population it is no wonder that most women today are chronically borderline or actually anaemic. Not to mention cellulite and loose skin, of course...

I am amazed of how little protein my female friends have. Quite often the amount of protein consumed is negligible, so it is no wonder why cellulite and loose skin is such a big issue today. The truth is that protein has been given plenty of bad press in the last couple of decades. Many nutritionists and naturopaths advise that you don't need a lot of protein because an excess "will tire your liver and kidneys". As a result most women avoid protein altogether, in favour of carbohydrates that "give you energy".

What women don't realise though, is that unless you burn those carbs with exercise and general physical activity, they will inevitably become "stored energy" i.e. fat, and they will add inches to their thighs and millimetres to the height of their cellulite "bumps". Hence the popular adage about sweets and carbs: "once in the lips forever in the hips".

This negative consequence is in addition to the effect of sugar on skin protein degradation due to glycation, mentioned above. Not to mention the negative effect fat cell expansion has on skin firmness, again mentioned above. So to conclude, things are very simple: lack of protein makes your skin loose, especially when combined with an excess of carbs and/or fat. Period.

And the other fact is that most women will not come anywhere close to tiring their kidneys and liver due to eating fish, chicken or low-fat red meat. It is just very difficult for most women to eat enough protein to exhaust their kidneys and liver. And the extra iron contained in the meat will be greatly appreciated by their bodies.

 

How about saturated fat contained in protein food then?

Indeed there is only one problem with red meat: saturated fat. Without saturated fat red meat is absolutely fine, especially if the meat is organic. However, the fact is that there are cuts of beef, lamb and pork that contain negligible amounts of saturated fat, i.e. as little as 2-4% fat. All you have to do is choose lean (red) cuts of meat when you do your shopping and look at the fat content displayed on the label - anything below 5% is absolutely fine. And if you do not like red meat, there are always poultry, fish, seafood and eggs to help you boost your protein intake levels without the problem of saturated fat.

 

What if I am a vegetarian?

This is not to say that eating a vegetarian diet will not necessarily provide you with enough protein. The only problem with vegetarian diets is that it is so much more difficult to achieve your daily protein quota, unless you eat a loooot of pulses, eggs, milk and low fat cheese without getting allergic to dairy and fed up of pulses. Unfortunately a depending on tofu and nuts will simply not cut it...

{Just to mention here that unfermented soya (as in as soya milk, tofu and soya textured protein) is not the healthy food it is purported to be, partly due to it's negative effect on thyroid function and partly due to it's high phytate content, which block absorption of many nutrients in the stomach. In contrast, fermented soya, as in miso, tempeh, soya sauce and natto are indeed very good for a woman's health.}

The best advice I have to give to vegetarians, and especially vegans, is supplement your diet with a combination of rice, pea or other vegan protein (vegetarians can also have whey and egg protein).

 

Which is the most filling food component: protein, carbohydrate or fat?

Well, actually none of the above. Fibre is the most satisfying food, and the best source of fibre is not cardboard-tasting wheat bran, but nutritious and juicy vegetables!

Protein is second-best as it introduces a feeling of satiety and helps you keep off the naughty fatty, sugary, carb-y foods that end up being deposited on your bum.

Carbohydrates, comprising sugars and starches, are definitely the least filling foods. Sugary foods, in particular, are the most addictive foods and lead to constant cravings and overeating. The same applies to starches, but to a lesser extent. The low glycaemic index (GI) carbs (pasta, brown rice, fruits) do not induce cravings as potently, whilst the high GI carbohydrates are the worst in that respect (all types of bread, white rice, pastry etc.).

Fats and oils can also be filling but are also very calorific, so they are not a solution to the hunger problem as they fill your stomach up but at the same time they fill your bum with fat too...

In fact, the best way to keep hunger and cravings at bay is combining vegetables (which are rich in fibre, antioxidants and water and poor in calories) with lean protein, e.g. salmon and loads of broccoli, lean steak with a large salad, prawns with lots of stir-fried vegetables, grilled chicken with mushrooms, peppers and courgettes etc. You get the drift...

 

How much protein do I need?

As a rule of a thumb, most women need about 40-60g of pure protein per day. This is equivalent to 4-5 eggs, a medium lean beef steak (~200g), a large salmon steak (200-300g), 500-600g of boiled lentils or boiled beans (that's a looot of beans and lentils, as mentioned above), or a combination of those or similar foods during any one day.

 

What if I fast/crash diet?

When you fast or crash diet you deny your body of proteins so you don't just lose so much fat, you lose mainly protein and water. This is because your body utilises the "beauty proteins" in order to provide your vital organs with essential proteins for survival and to synthesise enzymes for basic bodily functions and digestion.

When you go back onto the "pigging out" phase after the crash diet, all the weight you put back on is fat, thereby gradually replacing firmness with fat with each crash diet/pig out cycle. This will inevitably happen every time you follow a crash diet, unless you do four things:

  • Resistance exercise (weights) during the "re-feeding" phase to regain the lost muscle
  • Power plate or high impact sports to regain the lost bone mass
  • Have vigorous anti-cellulite/skin firming treatments to stimulate the rebuilding of the lost skin proteins
  • Have plenty of protein during and after your diet

As you can see it's cheap and easy to lose your skin firmness and expensive and difficult to regain it, so the advice is simple: avoid regular crash dieting.

By the way, yoga, pilates, lymphatic massages and other lightweight approaches won't help you replace the lost protein on your muscles, bones or skin, as they offer minimal protein synthesis stimulation. Firming/anti-cellulite creams and a high intake of antioxidants and flavanols, typically found in vegetables, berry fruits, herbs and cocoa, can also aid in protein synthesis. Activities such as running and swimming also help.

 

The moral of the story is...

...that if you want to look firm and keep cellulite at bay you'd better exercise vigorously and regularly, avoid crash dieting, eat enough protein, vegetables, berries, herbs and spices and avoid sugar, excessive carbs, saturated fat, trans fats and anything fried. In addition, regularly having anti-cellulite treatments and applying a good cellulite cream will also help fill the gaps in your lifestyle and keep your skin toned and smooth.